Thursday, September 22, 2005

Elul and Selihot (Archives)

On Elul

I would like to continue, in a slightly different way, some of the things I began saying in Re’eh about the holiness of specific time and the potential holiness of universal or general time, in connection with Elul. There is an interesting halakhic puzzle here. Anyone at all acquainted with Jewish religious life is familiar with the intense spiritual energy associated with the month of Elul. It is known as Hodesh ha-Rahamim veha-Selihot, “the month of mercy and forgiveness.” In the yeshivah world, particularly, great efforts are devoted during this month to personal spiritual work, directed toward teshuvah: special periods of time are devoted to the study of Musar (ethical-spiritual) works; frequent talks are given related to the theme of repentance; prayer times are particularly intense. For example, yeshiva folklore relates that people used to come from far and wide to the great yeshivah in Lakewood simply to hear the Mashgiah (spiritual counselor) recite the response to Kaddish, “Yehei shmei rabbah mevorakh,” during the month of Elul.

Even among ordinary Jews, Elul has a special coloration. The shofar is blown every morning; Psalm 27, speaking of God as “my light and my salvation” and of the Jew’s “one wish,” namely, “to dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,” is recited morning and evening. Sephardim begin reciting Selihot, pre-dawn penitential prayers, from the beginning of the month; Ashkenazim join them in this during the closing days of the month.

The puzzle is: where does all this come from? This special character of Elul has no basis in classic Rabbinic sources, which speak only of the “ten days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Hakippurim” as a time of added religious efforts to “tip the scales of Divine judgement” in our favor, by means of prayer, good deeds, repentance and giving tzedaka (charity). True, the Tur (Orah Hayyim 581) mentions the midrash in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer stating that Moses reascended Mount Sinai on Rosh Hodesh Elul, and that the shofar was blown in the camp to signal that the sin of the Calf had been forgiven. This began a forty-day period of divine reconciliation, culminating in the revelation to Moses of the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy to Moses in the cleft of the rock, on Yom Kippur. But this is a very late source.

My answer is, quite simply, that all these aspects of Elul are prime examplars of the creative role of minhag (custom) in Jewish life. As I quoted earlier, “If they are not prophets, they are sons of prophets…”

In the spirit of Elul, and the centrality of “the fear of God,” I would like to suggest two verses for reflections and meditation. The one is “Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling” (Ps 2:11), with its somber echoes or turn-around of Psalm 100’s “Serve the Lord with joy, come before Him with shouts of gladness.” The second is ”the Fear of the Lord is pure” (Ps 19:10). Why is the adjective tehora, “pure,” chosen, among all the phrases in this psalm, to refer specifically to fear? I find something mysterious in both these verses; any insights will be appreciated.

“Arise, Cry Out in the Night… Pour out your heart like water before the Divine Presence” (Lam 2:19)

There is a unique ambience to the Selihot prayers, recited during the pre-dawn hours during the days before Rosh Hashana and the Ten Days of Repentance (or, among the Sephardim, throughout the month of Elul). The idea of rising for prayer in the still of the night, when the entire world is sleeping, creates an unusual atmosphere, conducive to a special type of prayer. There is an introspective, emotional mood elicited at that hour; ideally, prayer at this time is thoroughly unhurried, focused, concentrated, without the sense felt on weekday mornings of rushing to finish so as to begin the day’s work. The Kabbalists referred to this time as that of hesed shebe-din—“mercy mixed within sternness.” Night, generally, is thought of as a time of fear, of lurking dangers; but as the night begins to recede, and day is felt to be just beyond the horizon, it begins to be “sweetened” with the quality of hesed of the daylight hours.

Maimonides (Hil. Teshuva 3.4) already refers to the custom among all Jewish communities to rise before dawn during the ten days between Rish Hashana nd Yom Kippur and to recite divrei tahanunim ve-kibbushin (“supplication and words of admonition”). Rav Soloveitchik speaks of Selihot as a kind of tefilat nedava, a voluntary or non-statutory prayer. Ordinarily, he notes, one is not allowed to approach God outside of established framework, for which reason there are all the elaborate rules and etiquette governing prayer. Here, in keeping with the mood of tense expectation connected with the days of teshuva, the Jewish people turn to God and beseech mercy outside of the regular framework.

The concept of Selihot was first introduced on public fast days as a kind of addition to prayer. But there they are recited immediately after the Reader’s Repetition, as an almost integral part of the Amidah itself; indeed, the name is not derived, as is often thought, from the motif of asking forgiveness from God, but rather from their having originally been interpolated within the blessing of Selah Lanu, the third petitionary blessing of weekday Amidah, just as Yotzrot are inserted in that section of the service. (I once observed Selihot for the fast day of BeH”aB recited in Selah Lanu in a congregation of Alsatian Jews in Paris, which I think of as a kind of nature preserve of medieval Ashkenazic customs).

As for the structure of the Selihot: at its heart are the shelosh esreh middot, the 13 qualities of Divine mercy, and Viduy, an abridged version of the confession of sins said on Yom Kippur. One best prepares for the great encounter with God during the Days of Awe by confession: by acknowledging ones own faults, through humility and abandoning ones puffed-up ego.

These are preceded by an impressive chain of Biblical verses, in which the key words at the end of one verse lead into the beginning of the next. The opening verses state that God listens to those who “knock on his gates in teshuva,” and continue with verses celebrating God’s majesty, His power over all of creation: “Day is yours, and also night; you created sun and luminaries… summer and winter you have made.”

Among the 13 middot and the biblical verses are the Selihot themselves: piyyutim, medieval Hebrew poems, presenting a broad picture of Jewish history, the merits of the patriarchs, reflection on the transience of human life, on God’s might and wisdom, etc. These follow a fixed pattern and style, increasing in number from three each night of the days before Rosh Hashana, to seven or eight during the Ten Days. The pinnacle is reached on the Eve of Rosh Hashana, with the lengthy collection of Selihot known as Zekhor Berit—“Remember the covenant with Abraham and the binding of Isaac…” The Selihot then conclude with verses invoking the merit of the patriarchs and various divine promises, and conclude with miscellaneous hymns and prayers.

Reflections on Teshuvah

I had originally intended to try my hand here on a discussion of Maimonides’ Laws of Teshuva—a subject to which I will perhaps return for Shabbat Shuvah. For this Shabbat, of the eve of first Selihot, I wish to share a very simple insight. Teshuva is essentially a “switch” in ones mind; a “turning,” as the name itself suggests. It is a decision of the heart and of the will. True, it needs to followed up by certain changes in behavior, requiring consistency and a dogged determination to follow through, but the act itself takes place in the depths of the soul, in the inner recesses of the personality where a person ultimately tells himself that some aspect of how he has been living is no good; that he or she is fed with himself on this point, and wishes to change. Or, to be more precise, teshuva occurs when one crosses the thin line that distinguishes wishing to change from deciding to change.

This is the sense of Rambam’s comment in Hilkhot Teshuva 2.4: “One of the ways of teshuva is for the penitent to change his name, as if to say ‘I am different; I am not the same person who did those acts.’” This is also one of the meanings of the verse in this week’s portion, ”It is not in heaven… nor is it over the sea… but this thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it” (30:12-14). This refers, not to physical distance, but to psychological distance, as if to refute those who say: the psychological distance required to change oneself, to turn, is unbridgeable.

This approach is very different from the modern mentality, or perhaps from that of Western culture generally. There is an element of fatalism in Western literature, from the Greek tragedy to Dostoevsky, in which catastrophe comes about through the inevitable play of character. The doctrine of original sin in Christian theology may be another expression of the same theme; contemporary psychological and biological determinism ultimately draws upon the same roots. Hence, the Jewish concept of teshuva, of the possibility of radical personal change, involves a daring hiddush, an innovation mitigating against the dominant belief in the essentially inflexible and fixed nature of character and personality. Thus, properly understood, the call to teshuva is not one of moralistic self-flagellation, but essentially a liberating message, of potential for freedom and rebirth.

A Thought for Elul

“Whoever does one good deed acquires a defending angel; whoever does one sin acquires an accusing angel.” (Avot 4.13)

I was reminded of these words of Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov some weeks ago, when I was walking along a Jerusalem street and came upon a poster announcing the death of a certain person. I had only met the deceased briefly, some twenty years before, but immediately memories of our encounter came flooding back to me. An author and thinker, he had approached me at that time to translate a short paper he had written. I was then a young man, just starting out in the translator’s profession. When the time came for him to collect the material, he made the following proposal: rather than paying me for the translation I had done, he would consider it as a sample of my work; if he liked it, he might give me the job of translating a much larger work he had written. I rejected the offer out of hand: it was not what we had agreed upon; I was a family man, with two small children to support, and had devoted time and effort in preparing the translation. But beyond that, there was something petty, dishonest, stingy, not to say insulting, in his approach. The incident also rankled, in light of the lofty and world-embracing ideas which he addressed in his writing.

All these thoughts crossed my mind when I saw the announcement that he had gone to His Maker. I then thought of the above passage in Pirkei Avot. We often read this passage in a quasi-mystical sense, as if referring to the “good” and “bad” angels created by our deeds, which are somehow summoned up in the heavenly courtroom each year on Rosh Hashana when all of us are judged, as well as at the end of life, when the dead person’s soul is called upon to render a final reckoning to its Creator.

But it occurred to me that there is a much simpler, more naturalistic reading of this dictum of Hazal. Try as I might to think charitable and forgiving thoughts towards this man (who no doubt thought of himself as a highly spiritual and ethical individual: after all, his entire life was devoted to the exploration of significant spiritual and ethical issues!), I cannot respect him. Should I chance upon a review of one of his books, or perhaps a eulogy in one of the papers, or see an announcement of the inevitable memorial lecture or academic mini-conference in his memory, I shall no doubt think: “If they only knew what he was like in real life! What a cheap, slimey hypocrite!”

I only met him once in his life. That one act, revealing his personality and character as it did, indelibly shaped my impression of the man. I shall no doubt carry the above-described memory of Mr. X to my own grave, because that is all I really know about him. His own behavior has will-nilly made me into an “accusing angel.”

That, I believe, is the lesson of this mishnah: that we must bear in mind the importance, which we often never anticipate, of every single act in our lives, because everything we does shapes how others judge us, and may turn them into a “prosecutor” or a “defender.” The message is not “What a creep Mr. X was,” but to extrapolate from it: If I remember X because of this one petty, nasty deed, so should I learn to be careful in life, and to know that I am constantly encountering others who may judge me, in the future, both before and after 120, on the basis of those small actions that betray my character.


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